Oakland artist Xavier Dphrepaulez—better known as Fantastic Negrito—came to Oakland’s Impact Hub in early March for a celebration of local talent and to make a donation to support Oakland’s teachers. Photo by Yasmin Graeml.

To celebrate a Grammy win, Fantastic Negrito donates to Oakland teachers

on March 27, 2019

After winning a Grammy for the second time, Oakland artist Xavier Dphrepaulez—better known as Fantastic Negrito—came to Oakland’s Impact Hub in early March for a celebration of local talent and to make a donation to support Oakland’s teachers, who had begun a strike a few days earlier. “Feels good, because you know, just four years ago I was playing on the streets right here on Broadway,” he told Oakland North in an interview. “Four years, two Grammys … pretty good.”

Fantastic Negrito has won two Grammys in the Best Contemporary Blues Album category. The first one was in 2017 with “The Last Days of Oakland“ and the second one, this year, with “Please Don’t Be Dead.”

Dphrepaulez was raised in Oakland, and he said started his music career during his teenage years as a way to escape the crack epidemic. When searching for music knowledge, he said, he pretended to be a UC Berkeley student to get into music classes at the university. “I stole my education. But, I guess, thank you, UC Berkeley,” he said with a laugh.

His career has had ups and downs, going from at one point having a multi-million-dollar recording contract in the mid-90s to playing in underground bars after a car accident caused him to lose part of his movement in his guitar-playing hand. His record label dropped him, and he had to relearn how to play with the opposite hand.

After the accident, he moved back to Oakland and paused his life in music for about five years. But after finding an old guitar, Dphrepaulez said, he was sure it was time to start playing again. He started what he called the “Fantastic Negrito playing-on-the-streets” phase of his career, playing outside of BART stations.

Dphrepaulez is now 51 years old, and his path back to music was not easy. He said has a different musical style from what most producers are normally looking for, so he got a lot of “nos” and disapproval of his songs.

“Four years ago people said ‘No’ to me,” he recalled. “I asked why and they said, ‘You are not a rapper. You are not a pretty girl playing pop. What are you? What is your music?’ I just went by myself and won a Grammy.”

To get his music published, he started his own record label in Oakland, Blackball Universe, together with the music producer Malcom Spellman. He also partnered with other artists to turn Fantastic Negrito into a band. They released their first album in 2014.

After their songs started to get the attention of other artists and music critics, he won the NPR Tiny Desk Contest, went on a European tour with Chris Cornell, and started playing music festivals.

During this year’s Grammy celebration, Dphrepaulez thanked the City of Oakland for giving him space to play and the Community Bank of the Bay, which sponsored the party and gave the artist $10,000 to donate to two local institutions of his choice. “He chose to give the first half of the money to the teachers that went on strike in the past few weeks,” said Bill Keller, president of the bank, as he attended the party.  

Dphrepaulez is still deciding on the second organization to receive the other $5,000. The band is currently on tour in South America so he hasn’t made the second donation yet.

The event was also a space to unite local artists and create a networking space for them. “As many great musicians as they have in LA and in that area, this is just one of my favorite areas for musicians,” said Mindi Abair, a singer from Los Angeles who recently moved to the Bay Area. “It is real. It’s beautiful.”

Mestiza, an Oakland soul-funk singer who was also in the event, said that the city is the starting place for many important and talented artists like Fantastic Negrito. “The scene has been really active,” she said. “You meet some of the best of the world in Oakland.”

“It’s something special in the water in Oakland,” agreed Dphrepaulez, as he recalled the artists who have started their careers in the city. “It is just so many talents.”

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Oakland North is an online news service produced by students at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and covering Oakland, California. Our goals are to improve local coverage, innovate with digital media, and listen to you–about the issues that concern you and the reporting you’d like to see in your community. Please send news tips to: oaklandnorthstaff@gmail.com.

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